President Rivlin's recent suggestion about creating a federation between Israel and Palestine isn't all that different from what already exists.
The concept of federalism, and its close cousin confederation, are among those terms that aren't all that precise. We can say that about many, perhaps all, concepts used for government and politics, which are among the slipperiest of activities, often defying crisp description..
The range of governments that call themselves federal or confederate is wide, and they tend to change with circumstances. Third World federations,e.g., Mexico, Nigeria, India, tend to be more centralized than some of the First World federations or confederate states, e.g., the US, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. Third World federations are also more chaotic in just about every dimension.
The boundaries between US government rights and powers have been fluid since the beginning, with no end of quarrels between the state and national governments, and lower between states and localities. Currently the prominent brouhaha appears in a number of governors who don't want to accept any of the Muslim refugees that Barack Obama would allow into the country.
Lots would quarrel, appropriately, about the suggestion that the relationships between Israel and Palestine approach a federal model. The balance of power is heavily tipped toward Israel, and the Palestinians claim hat they haven't any semblance of rights.
The realities are complex, as they are everywhere, especially in Third World countries that call themselves federal.
Israel is well within the range of First World countries, while what passes for Palestine is in the Third.
Officials of neither Israel nor any component of Palestine (Gaza, West Bank) admit that they have a federal relationship.
Israeli officials are equally adamant in rejecting any proposal that they create a single state beween the Jordan and the Mediterranean, with both Palestinians and Israelis as citizens with equal rights.
Israel is a small country with a highly centralized government.
The Palestinians live in two places that are sharply at odds with one another, i.e., Gaza and the West Bank, with the West Bank loosely governed by officials widely viewed as corrupt by their constituents.
Nonetheless . . .
Since Oslo, the Palestinians have substantial autonomy for domestic issues in areas where Palestinians are concentrated. However, Israel enters whenever it feels a security justification. Its personnel go house to house, and come back home with the people they have sought. Often there are dead Palestinians left to be buried.
There is some degree of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security personnel, with both operating against those who oppose the current Palestinian regime for its being too accommodating with respect to Israel.
Israel has been steadfast in opposing Palestinian demands to settle their disputes.
Palestinians have been just as steadfast in refusing offers of compromise coming from Israeli or international mediators.
Where we are is at a place that some would call an anomaly. Palestine is not a country, a state, or even a fully recognized component of Israel or anything else.
However, it operates somewhat like a component or dependency (another term that is slippery) of Israel.
Israel lets tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank into the country daily for work, and generally overlooks who knows how many other thousands who sneak through the porous boundaries. As in the case of illegal Latinos in the US, there are lots of Israelis willing to employ the illegal Palestinians.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials claim that they want to solve the problems and do away with the anomalies, but both seem to prefer the status quo to any concessions that would be required for a solution.
Jerusalem is an important subset, where all sides appear to be unhappy, but where they seem to prefer the status quo to anything else that's been suggested.
Arabs who became residents of Israeli Jerusalem in 1967 and their descendants have not, for the most, chosen to become citizens, but their residence status gives them the advantages of being able to work in the Israeli economy and benefit from Israeli social services including health insurance. They can also vote in local elections. Their numbers would give them considerable weight in the municipality by virtue of having the balance between the prominent blocs of secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. However, pressures from Palestinian activists have kept almost all Arabs of East Jerusalem from voting in local elections. The argument we hear is that if they voted, they would be accepting Israel's illegitimate control, or Israel's illegitimate existence.
No doubt Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem receive less benefits than neighborhoods that are largely Jewish. That has something to do with Palestinians failing to use their political clout in the municipality.
Polls show more Jerusalem Arabs preferring the status quo with Israel than joining a Palestinian state.
Jews complain that they cannot visit freely the Temple Mount and pray there, or even pray silently while moving their lips, without being escorted away by security personnel. Israel, in the person of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, gave control of the Mount to Muslim religious authorities after the 1967 war.
There are Jews who would build a Third Temple on the site, with or without doing away with the Muslim structures. Yet there are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Rabbis who forbid Jews from setting foot on the Temple Mount, given the problems in locating sacred sites where the impure should not trod. And we're all impure, given the lack of a kosher red heifer.
Few Israelis visit the Temple Mount, but polls show that many--secular as well as religious--oppose any settlement that would give Muslims exclusive rights to that place.
Imagine Bibi agreeing to divide Jerusalem, even though it is already divided, pretty much like Washington, D.C. and a number of other American and European cities, where the police enter hostile ethnic neighborhoods in force, if at all .
And imagine the Palestinians and Jordanians settling their dispute as to who should rule Muslim religious matters in Jerusalem, or whether the Jews have ever had a significant presence in the city and deserve the right to pray on the Temple Mount.
Reasonable people, and some who are not so reasonable, quarrel about all of this.Some are intense enough to go over the boundaries to hate and violence.
The picture isn't all that different from unresolved racial issues in my former homeland, and what the West is going to do with a million refugees this year--Muslims from the Middle East plus Muslims and others from Africa--and another million forecast for next year.
Here things may be at an especially high fever, due to what those with intense religious feelings (Jews, Christians and Muslims) feel about the Temple Mount and related matters.
Perhaps our greatest problem is senior American officials, and Europeans who go along with them, who are oblivious to the benefits in the Israeli/Palestinian status quo. They continue to press the locals to find a solution, which none of the ranking Israelis or Palestinians are able to accept, each for their own good political reasons.
We can ask the Almighty, however we call that figure, to save us from those whose efforts to help contribute only to frustration, anger, and upticks in violence. In this season sacred to only a few Israelis or Palestinians, we can remind all about the paving on the road to Hell.
Israeli radio appears to be broadcasting more Christmas music than in years past. It is far from the flood heard on American media, but it may reflect a change in how Christians and Jews relate to one another. There are also many Muslims who get along with Jews and Christians, despite the gory details in recent headlines.
All the appropriate blessings from Jerusalem.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem